Glasgow Film Festival review: City Hall
Mayor Walsh: 8 : 8 : 88
Red River Valley8
Matthew Turner | On 05, Mar 2021
Director: Fred Wiseman
Cast: Martin J Walsh
Watch City Hall online in the UK: Glasgow Film Festival
City Hall is one of the films playing at the online Glasgow Film Festival. For the full line-up, plus how the festival works, see our guide here.
Filmed in 2018, this fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the workings of Boston city government is the latest documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Frederick Wiseman (91 this year and still going strong), following similar projects on the National Gallery (National Gallery), the New York Public Library (Ex Libris), Berkeley University (At Berkeley), the inhabitants of Jackson Heights in Queens, New York (In Jackson Heights) and small-town farming communities (Monrovia, Indiana). Clocking in at a bottom-challenging 4.5 hours, it’s a lengthy endeavour even by Wiseman’s standards, but there are more than enough rewards to make it worth your while.
As with his previous films, Wiseman’s technique is entirely observational, allowing his fly-on-the-wall cameras to sit in on a wide variety of municipal meetings and occasionally accompanying city workers on specific jobs, such as a pest controller visiting a rat-infested apartment or a visit to the Animal Control Centre. It certainly feels as if every possible aspect of city government is covered, from same-sex weddings at the registry office to meetings on affordable housing and a public meeting about the proposed opening of a cannabis shop near a school.
Although City Hall is similar to Wiseman’s other films in form and substance, there is one key difference. In the previous documentaries, there were no recurring figures, so you hardly ever saw the same person appear more than once, whereas City Hall effectively has its own lead character in the form of Mayor Martin J Walsh, currently serving his sixth year in office. Compassionate, straightforward and clearly devoted to his city, Mayor Walsh is seemingly involved in every single aspect of Boston’s government. Consequently, he pops up every few minutes or so and by the film is over you’ll be ready to endorse him for President, should such a thing ever be on the cards.
Walsh’s heart-warming presence, and the example he sets, combine to ensure that the film has a much more overtly political stance than we’re used to seeing in Wiseman’s films. In an interview, the director acknowledged as much, saying City Hall was an anti-Trump film, “because the Mayor and the people who work for him believe in democratic norms – they represent everything Donald Trump doesn’t stand for”. It’s fair to say that that reverence for democracy is present in every frame of City Hall, and it’s refreshing to see the way the city just gets on with business, despite the aforementioned 2018 occupant of the White House.
Throughout the film, there are several wonderful scenes, even if some of the meeting sequences are as boring as it would be to sit in on actual meetings. Highlights include: a bizarrely compelling sequence that simply observes a garbage truck chomping away at various large objects (a mattress, a wooden bed frame, a metal cabinet, etc); a bit where an awestruck archaeologist reveals that a recent excavation unearthed 15,000 year-old clams; a peek into the Hearing Room, where people attempt to talk themselves out of parking tickets; and the film’s most delightful surprise, a beautiful and entirely unexpected rendition of Red River Valley. (To say any more would be to detract from the moment itself.)
In short, this is a triumph: informative and inspirational, while capturing the warmth and humanity of the city of Boston. It has a terrific finale too, a stirring, tears-in-the-eyes feel-good moment that’s as effective as anything Hollywood scriptwriters could dream up.
City Hall is streaming at the Glasgow Film Festival until 1pm on Monday 8th March. Book tickets here.